Originally created 04/16/04

Heat in 5.



WESTERN CONFERENCE:

No. 1 MINNESOTA (58-24) vs No. 8 DENVER (43-29)

Season series: Timberwolves won 3-1, with Earl Boykins helping force Sam Cassell into seven turnovers in Denver's lone win.

Storyline: Minnesota has its best opportunity to make it out of the first round after seven consecutive opening-round ousters.

Key matchup I: Kevin Garnett vs. Nene. Garnett did a little of everything during the season series, including playing point guard in the teams' final meeting. But the Nuggets did have some success when they fronted Garnett in the low post and got physical with him under the boards.

Key matchup II: Sam Cassell vs. Andre Miller. Few players in the league display the poise and talent to match Cassell, a clutch shooter who has added the 3-point shot to his vast midrange arsenal. Miller will try to engineer as many transition points as possible, because if the Nuggets get stuck playing a half-court game they're in trouble.

X-Factor: Somebody will have to stop Carmelo Anthony in one-on-one situations, and the best man for the job is Latrell Sprewell - one of two players, along with Cassell, who brought a wealth of postseason experience to Minnesota.

Little-known fact: Three former No. 1 picks of the Nuggets will be playing for other teams in the postseason: Dikembe Mutombo of the Knicks (1991), Rodney Rogers of the Nets (1993), and James Posey of the Grizzlies (1999).

Prediction: Timberwolves in 6.

No 2 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (56-26) vs. No. 7 HOUSTON ROCKETS (45-37)

Season series: Tied 2-2, with Yao Ming averaging 23.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Rockets' two victories.

Storyline: The first postseason meeting between Shaquille O'Neal and Yao, the most dominant centers of this generation and the next. Also a playoff reunion of coaches Phil Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, bitter rivals from their days in the Eastern Conference.

Key matchup I: O'Neal vs. Yao. Their first career meeting before the 2003 All-Star game was one of the most-watched games of last season, and their matchup on Christmas night this season was one of the NBA's marquee games. Yao, who rises to challenges, has performed well in his first two seasons against O'Neal.

Key matchup II: Kobe Bryant vs. Jim Jackson/Cuttino Mobley. A mismatch no matter who defends Bryant, the league's best clutch shooter, whose buzzer-beater to force overtime vs. Portland on Wednesday night was beyond incredible.

X-Factor: O'Neal shot just 49 percent from the foul line, his worst percentage in seven years. Yao shot 81 percent at the line.

Little-known fact: In 1996, Van Gundy dubbed Jackson "Big Chief Triangle." In 2000, Jackson said of Van Gundy: "He's like a fly on the wall to me."

Prediction: Lakers in 7.

No. 3 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (57-25) vs. No. 6 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (50-32)

Season series: Memphis won 3-1, with 94 points by the Grizzlies on March 9 marking the highest point total by either team in those games.

Storyline: No team was a bigger surprise than Memphis, which made the postseason for the first time in franchise history under the direction of 70-year-old Hubie Brown. But no team played better over the final two weeks of the season than San Antonio, which won its last 11 games.

Key matchup I: Tim Duncan vs. Pau Gasol. Probably the two most fundamentally sound 7-footers in the league, one of whom has two championship rings.

Key matchup II: Tony Parker vs. Jason Williams. Their coaches tend to get frustrated by these erratic but hugely talented point guards.

X-Factor: Memphis' rotation goes 10 deep, and the Grizzlies thrive on using fresh players, creating havoc and forcing turnovers. San Antonio is turnover-prone.

Little-known fact: Brown was the color commentator on Spurs telecasts before taking over as coach of the Grizzlies.

Prediction: Spurs in 7.

No. 4 SACRAMENTO KINGS (55-27) vs. No. 5 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32)

Season series: Mavericks won 3-1, with Steve Nash accounting for 19 assists in the final meeting April 1.

Storyline: A high-scoring rematch of a last year's second-round series that went seven games. The Mavs won the clincher with ease as Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie and Vlade Divac played poorly and Chris Webber was sidelined by injury.

Key matchup I: Mike Bibby vs. Steve Nash. There are eight outstanding points guards in the Western Conference playoffs, but these two might be the best of the bunch. Bibby is eager to prove his sub-par postseason performance last year was an aberration, while Nash would like to enhance his value before becoming a free agent.

Key matchup II: Rick Adelman vs. Don Nelson. Both coaches have been perplexed by their teams' swings from highs to lows, Sacramento's woes coming since the return of Webber and Dallas' coming before Nelson switched back to a smallball lineup this month.

X-Factor: Dirk Nowitzki had such a poor series against the Kings a year ago that the Dallas Morning News listed him as 20-1 to be the hero of Game 7, which the Mavericks won. His scoring average dropped 3.3 points this season, and he made 49 fewer 3-pointers than a year ago.

Little-known fact: Dallas and Sacramento were ranked first and second in offense. The Mavericks also led the league in free throw shooting, offensive rebounds and turnovers, while the Kings led in field goal percentage, assists and 3-point accuracy.

Prediction: Kings in 7.